The continued flow of MENA migrants into Europe remains the defining factor transforming the internal political dynamic in the European Union. The more than 1.5 million people who entered the EU last year, as well as those who are continuing to arrive on Europe’s shores, are straining state resources. The security of the EU’s external borders, a key subject of the recent heads-of-state meeting in Vienna, is also a serious problem. But even more significant than these are the internal political changes the migrant flows are driving: the growing polarization of the public and the hardening of anti-immigrant feelings across Europe.
The latter effect, the change in attitudes, is much more important for the EU’s future than whether member states can negotiate a plan for redistributing new arrivals; immigrants’ continuing difficulty integrating into society is an increasingly urgent problem. The newcomers’ failure to adapt to their new environment is a function of their often-limited language skills, cultural differences, and continued low levels of employment. All of this is driving a general sense in a number of host nations that the open door policy pursued by Germany and a number of other states last year is stretching their countries past the breaking point.
The challenge of resettling and integrating the current immigrant wave has become a key political issue, especially in Germany. According to Germany’s Federal Statistics Office, in 2015 the country recorded the highest postwar immigrant influx of two million people; the net immigration of 1.14 million marked a 49 percent increase in 2015 (in 2014 Germany recorded net immigration of 577,000). For the first time last year most of the arrivals were not from Europe.
The anti-immigrant backlash has been gathering strength across Europe, accelerating in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. According to a GfK Verein poll, concern in Germany over immigration doubled from last year, with 83 percent respondents identifying immigration/integration issues as one of the most pressing challenges facing the country. In the GfK report, in contrast to results from earlier years, one out of the seven Germans identifying immigration as a key problem want “positive integration” to be the solution, while one out of five is opposed to any further immigration. In July, Germany experienced some of the most intense street protests in Berlin against the government’s current immigration policy following a series of terrorist attacks in the country. The polarization of German politics on this issue has accelerated, with pro- and anti-immigration forces now confronting each other across Germany’s shrinking political middle ground.
France had already been experiencing an anti-immigrant backlash when the Nice attacks this summer fanned the flames, boosting the National Front, especially in the south of the country. Anti-immigrant tensions have been rising in Italy following a violent clash in Rome in July, indicative of the growing public anger against the now approximately quarter million migrants that have entered the country since the wave accelerated last year (170,000 last year; 84,000 in 2016 by the time the confrontation in Rome erupted). In smaller states, nationalist trends have also accelerated; for instance, in Denmark “The New Right Party” (Nye Borgerlige) which defines itself as stricter on immigration than the Danish People’s Party (The New Right Party calls for no asylum, stopping all refugees except those brought by UNHCR, and a referendum to leave the EU) gathered the required 20,000 signatures to get on next year’s ballot. In Hungary and Poland, the governments remain opposed to mandatory resettlement schemes and to the inflow of MENA migrants in general.
Anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, fueled by the growing fear that continued MENA immigration will lead to more ISIS terrorist attacks, is now translating into a larger shift in European attitudes to multiculturalism. The Pew Research Center’s 2016 survey report showed that on average more than 70 percent of the people polled in ten EU countries believed that diversity made their country a worse place to live or that it didn’t make much difference, with 30 percent responding that diversity made their country a better place to live. As the EU struggles to address last year’s surge in migration from outside of Europe, polarization on the issue has deepened across the Continent.
Two key factors are shaping the next stage of Europe’s immigration crisis: an accelerated realignment of domestic politics in key European countries in response to the arrival of large numbers of Muslim immigrants, and the increasingly complex relationship between the European Union and Turkey. The two are interconnected, for the speed and the severity of the gathering anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe will depend to a degree on whether the EU’s deal with Turkey holds. How proactively Ankara acts to process and maintain the new entrants on its own territory remains critical to slowing down the MENA migration rate into Europe. Here, at least, public indicators are a cause for concern; Turkey’s President Erdogan has complained that his country is yet to receive the €3 billion in assistance promised by the EU. In Greece and Italy some 160,000 immigrants await both processing and a decision about their right to remain. Austria announced that this year it would accept only 37,500 asylum seekers, less than half of last year’s 90,000. Polls in the run up to the upcoming referendum in Hungary in a week show over 70 percent of the public staunchly against allowing immigrants to be resettled in the country.
The anti-immigrant backlash gathering in Europe is focused on the growing terrorist threat in the wake of recent jihadi attacks, the economic costs of absorbing and supporting immigrants, and the deeper question of how the national culture and identity of host nations are being affected. In Germany in regional election after election, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) has shown steady gains in support, notwithstanding the fact that only three years ago the party did not exist. Since the last elections in Berlin, the AfD now holds seats in ten of sixteen German regional legislatures. More significant, however, is the decline in support for Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (in some regions support for the CDU has fallen from 40 to 20 percent). The halving of the CDU’s support and the brewing rebellion within the CSU—the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria—raise the specter that the 2017 German elections may be transformative, not just for the country’s politics but also for the EU as a whole. It’s probably too much to expect the AfD to emerge as a principal player in 2017; the party continues to do exceptionally well, but its numbers remain in low double digits. But the risk of the electorate’s continued fragmentation, driven by discontent over the immigrant issue, is real, with the country losing the ability to build coalitions around the establishment Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Although Angela Merkel is still likely to lead her party in the next election, it bears serious consideration what impact an inward looking and weakened Germany will have for the European Union as a whole. While Germany remains the linchpin of the EU, the trend towards seeking individual state-based solutions to MENA immigration has been accelerating in Europe, notwithstanding efforts to come up with Union-wide policies.
More than Europe’s economic woes, the MENA migration crisis has redefined the fundamentals of the intra-EU contract by deepening public mistrust of EU institutions. It will continue to shape the future of the European project for years to come. To argue, as some analysts have done, that anti-immigrant sentiment was not a key variable in the narrow Brexit “leave” vote is to deny the continued pressure that immigration puts on the European project—not just from MENA, for the flow of immigrants from newer members of the EU to the east and south has generated tensions and “immigrant fatigue” in a number of British communities (London alone is home to a million immigrants from Europe). There are few certainties in European politics today, other than the realization that the ground continues to shift beneath the very EU institutions that not long ago were seen as accreting more power, with full sovereignty of its member-states increasingly a thing of the past. Today what passes for consensus in the European Union is defined by Angela Merkel’s efforts to establish a baseline consensus for a German-French-Italian triangle, while reaching out to the Visegrad Four, especially Poland, in an effort to contain the growing dissent across Europe. Since Brexit delivered a powerful shock to the system, the clock is ticking on how much longer Berlin and Brussels can insist that this too can be overcome and that the European Union project can again move forward. The reality is quite different: The regionalization of competing visions of Europe is now visible across Europe. It is likely to accelerate and become a baseline for the debate on how to reorder the EU in the coming years.
The reaction in Berlin to the shifting ground on migration has been a partial acknowledgement on the part of Merkel that the immigration process should have been better prepared and that the numbers exceeded the government’s capacity to respond quickly; however, she defends the original decision to open Germany’s borders. In Brussels there seems to be more interest in how to consummate Brexit than how to address migration, notwithstanding declarations to the contrary. The position that the European Commission took in the heat of the moment—the demand that the British move forward to finalize their exit from the EU—has been accompanied by calls for more integration and, frankly, muddling through, making the leadership appear ever-more disconnected from the public, and even downright peevish on occasion.
There seems to be little the EU bureaucracy can offer today when it comes to managing the immigration crisis in the face of the increasingly hardening national resistance of the member-states. Earlier proposals by the European Commission to push for a mandatory quota resettlement have been all but shelved in the face of a determined pushback first from Central European governments and, increasingly, from governments in Western Europe that earlier were willing to sign on to the proposal. And so with no larger consensus in Europe on what needs to be done, the second phase of the MENA migration drama is now accelerating, strengthening the surge of nationalism in Europe and pitting angered and increasingly fearful publics against the governing elites.
Tensions across Europe over the MENA migration are unlikely to abate even though the numbers of new entrants have been reduced thanks to the EU’s deal with Turkey and the return of some rejected asylum applicants. The crisis continues to transform the Continent’s politics, accelerating the centrifugal forces within the EU as national governments take an increasingly hard line on the resettlement and redirect their efforts to securing the EU’s external borders. Too many factors are now pulling Europe’s member-states apart to remain confident that a coherent response to the deepening immigrant crisis can be found. One thing is clear, however. As Europe heads into key 2017 elections in Germany and France, it is likely to emerge more fragmented and polarized, as established parties give more ground to movements driven by the anti-immigrant backlash across the Continent.